Eustress (Definition #5)

May 13, 2006

Eustress is what they call good stress. The kind you feel when you get a raise, or buy a new house, or go on a great first date. Good in the sense that it makes you feel good, that the stress is enjoyable. Challenges and projects create eustress, overload and problems create distress (bad stress).

However, eustress is not the same as serenity and blissfulness. Eustress is still stress. It still has many of the same symptoms of distress, including:

  • Raised adrenaline levels
  • Raise corticosterone levels (a steroid hormone)
  • Increased heart-rate
  • Increased respiration
  • Higher blood pressure

Good stress will also just as easily lead to physical problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, enlargement of the adrenal glands, and other illnesses (according to Wikipedia, and when are they wrong).

Stress is a big deal. If you look at the list of 15 ways to live longer, you’ll quickly notice that almost all of them are related to mental or physical stress. Be optimistic, have a pet, be rich, chill out, laugh a little, manage stress, and meditate are all about managing mental stress. Don’t oversleep, have more sex, get a VAP (cholesterol test), stop smoking, eat your antioxidants, and exercise are all about managing your physical stress. What I’m saying, I guess, is be stressed about stress!

What is the purpose of eustress?

I used to believe that my purpose in life was to find reasons to celebrate. It was a general theory I had that by seeking reasons to celebrate that I would seek worthwhile things. Everyone likes to celebrate… our society is pretty much built on this premise: happy hours, Fridays, dessert, holidays that we don’t even know much about other than that we get the day off or get presents, New Years, etc. In a society where we say anything is possible if you work for it, celebration is the carrot of success.

Celebration involves a shift in priorities… up until now you have been focused on working, saving, building, designing, and planning… celebration involves the opposite: playing, spending, taking down, relaxing, enjoying. It involves partying and drinking and perhaps being a little crazy.

If you think about it, celebration and eustress work to bring you back to normal levels. Eustress is a form of negative feedback designed to spend excess energy, success, money, happiness, and alcoholic tolerance and bring you back to a level that you’re more comfortable with. This is not necessarily a bad thing… saving money your entire life without ever enjoying the benefits of spending it sounds like a life wasted. On the other hand, you can see the symptoms of this with people who rise quickly in fame or wealth… many times they will end up spending it all wildly and quickly end up right where they started.

What is the alternative to eustress?

It makes sense for some systems to maintain homeostasis. For example, our bodies need to regulate on the principles of homeostasis for a number of things such as body temperature, oxygen levels, hydration, etc. When we’re hungry, we should be distressed and seek food. When we’re full, we should feel satiated and energized and expend energy. When we’re cold, we should shiver and when we’re hot we should sweat.

However, there are other systems that may seem to be homeostatic but which sometimes are not. The money in our bank for example. Oftentimes our incomes will remain fairly fixed, and so we know when we’re spending too much and when we have some money that we can safely spend. This triggers the eustress/distress principles of spending… who doesn’t sometimes feel the pinch right before payday and decline on the spontaneous trip to Vegas, and who hasn’t celebrated on a payday with a few extra drinks or a nicer meal? But, if you think about it, there’s no reason why a bank account has to have a particular dollar amount comfort zone. Some people maintain their balance near zero, and others maintain their balance near $100,000… and it makes no qualitative difference if you still feel as distressed at $99,990 as you do at -$10. I’ll give you two choices. Who would you rather be:

  • Someone who spends money whenever they get it, but never has savings.
  • Someone who saves all their money and never enjoys it.

Celebrator or scrooge… those are your two options. Well, of course, everyone wants to be somewhere in between. How does “in between” avoid the problem though? How much should you save? How often should you celebrate? The scroogier you are, the more quickly you’ll amass riches! But what use is amassing riches if you never have fun? The dilemma continues.The answer is simple. Know what you’re working towards. If you know what your ideal scene is, you’ll know why you’re saving, and you’ll also preserve the spirit of the scene that you’re working towards. Use distress and eustress to your advantage… they are tools for promoting change and all you need is a direction to point it.

More about stress:

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